Jonathan Godfrey, National President

Editor’s note: In this column, Jonathan Godfrey reflects on the essence of successful partnerships, when applied in particular to Government working with Disabled People’s Organisations.

When two people decide they are going to form a partnership, they generally do so as equals. They won’t be totally equal of course; each of them will have their own strengths and weaknesses to bring to the relationship. 

A successful partnership takes advantage of the strengths, and often uses them to overcome the weaknesses. In short, they work as a team. There aren’t many partnerships that work well where one party is completely dominated by the other.

The same is true in many of the relationships Blind Citizens NZ has with Government agencies, our DPO Coalition colleagues, and our partners in the Independent Monitoring Mechanism (IMM). We benefit in our collective work that promotes the rights of disabled people because we each bring our strengths to the table, we respect each other, and we get the job done, often with a lot of pleasure thrown in for good measure.

Disabled people have chosen their representatives in these settings. We have an election for the Board of Blind Citizens NZ, and the National President. I might have been elected unopposed, but I’m sure if there was sufficient feeling to replace me, the members of this Disable People’s Organisation (DPO) would let their feelings be known through the ballot box.

A healthy DPO also invites constructive criticism and dialogue about the performance of its leadership, and rightly so. In recent times, we’ve managed to have a number of sessions on Zoom for members to share their views on topics which can influence the Board in its deliberations, help members to speak up for themselves, but ultimately to make sure the view put forward by Blind Citizens NZ as a DPO reflects the broad spectrum of member aspirations and lived experiences. We also have our AGM and Conference where the voice of individuals gets a good airing in our effort to find a consensus-based outcome.

Our organisational motto of “Blind people speaking for ourselves” existed well before the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Disability Convention). 

But the Disability Convention and the General Comment statements issued by the UN Committee from time to time, all speak of the right for disabled people to be heard as individuals and in particular “through their representative organisations.” But let’s tease that out a bit…

In the preamble to the Disability Convention which describes the background principles, there is a statement that reads, “Considering that persons with disabilities should have the opportunity to be actively involved in decision-making processes about policies and programmes, including those directly concerning them,” The Disability Convention then goes on to say how the Government must work towards achieving the long list of principles using clearly articulated obligations in numbered articles.

The way we work with and for our members is what gives life to Article 4.3 of the Disability Convention. It is here that the word “consult” first appears in the text. Article 4.3 says: “In the development and implementation of legislation and policies to implement the present Disability Convention, and in other decision-making processes concerning issues relating to persons with disabilities, States Parties shall closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, including children with disabilities, through their representative organizations.”

To make my point that this article is about DPOs, not individuals, let’s remove the words relating to children; it would then oblige close consultation with and active involvement of “persons with disabilities through their representative organizations.” This does not exclude the Government from needing to work with individuals, disabled or non-disabled, but it explicitly obliges the Government to work with DPOs.

So, the Disability Convention explicitly empowers DPOs, and does so ahead of individuals. 

The second reference to DPOs appears in Article 29 on Participation in political and public life; the third is in Article 32 on International cooperation; and the last reference is Article 33 on National implementation and monitoring.

We must look to the General Comments issued by the UN Committee to see how disabled individuals are to be empowered by Governments. In every reference to individuals I’ve found, the reference also mentions DPOs. In contrast, there are specific statements about DPOs. For instance, paragraph 1 of General Comment 7 says: “The effective and meaningful participation of persons with disabilities, through their representative organizations, is thus at the heart of the Convention.”

General Comment 7 is crucial for us as a DPO because it is about DPOs. I like paragraph 56 which states, “States parties should ensure that the participation of organizations of persons with disabilities in monitoring processes, through independent monitoring frameworks, is based on clear procedures, proper time frames and previous dissemination of relevant information. Monitoring and evaluation systems should examine the level of engagement of organizations of persons with disabilities in all policies and programmes and ensure that the views of such persons are given priority. To fulfil their primary responsibility for service provision, States parties should explore partnerships with organizations of persons with disabilities to gain inputs from the users of services themselves.”

“Given priority”! That’s massive. It rather suggests the views of DPOs should trump those of our Independent Monitoring Mechanism (IMM) partners. That said, I would say that the IMM is strong because we do work collaboratively as equal partners. In addition, the ability we have in NZ to play an active role in our IMM is unusual and seems to be viewed with some scepticism by other countries whose disabled people are less actively involved in their IMMs. I’m proud of the partnership we have with the IMM; it is working well for the disabled people of NZ.

It’s hard to find any references to the idea of partnership in the Disability Convention or in any of the General Comments, at least not in the context of disabled people working with Government. Article 4.3 didn’t suggest partnership, so every time we hear the word “partnership” in this context, we really need to stop and ask what sort of partnership is meant.

Partnership in the context of DPOs is about representing the views of disabled people, and doing so on the basis of collectivism over individualism; that means I must, as your National President, reflect the collective views of blind, deafblind, vision-impaired and low-vision people, not my personal opinion. Individuals don’t have that responsibility, and they aren’t answerable for their actions either.

Government wants to have a partnership with disabled people. Partnership is not about contracting or employment of disabled people. It is about having disabled people speaking for ourselves on issues that affect our lives. Individuals get jobs as individuals and we do need more disabled people taking up employment across Government. Giving contracts to organisations run by disabled people is laudable, but only if those organisations are capable of delivering on the contract.

In the New Zealand context, the word “partnership” is often used to describe the relationship between Tangata Whenua and the Government. There’s plenty of active debate outside disability circles on this particular topic, but one point I hear in that debate rings out very strongly for me. Tangata Whenua claim the right to choose their representatives, not to have them chosen by the Government. There might be a lesson we can learn in disability circles from that debate, and make sure that Government continues to consistently partner with DPOs, and not get too committed to a strategy of choosing which disabled people it will work with.